Episode 003: How to Prevail Even in Extreme Adversity

by Ellen Cooperperson

You’re going to face many personal and professional challenges in life, and you can prevail in all of them. Ellen Cooperperson describes four different life-threatening situations her son faced as a young man and how the two of them used creativity, persistence and determination to overcome the odds each time. Ellen is the CEO and founder of Cooperperson Performance Consulting, and the author of the bestselling book, Desire, Discipline, and Determination. Hearing her story will inspire and motivate you to keep seeking solutions no matter what you’re dealing with.

You’ll discover:

  • How to ensure clients comply with agreements you’ve made
  • Why your attitude is critical to the way you respond to unexpected bad news
  • The value of being resourceful when it seems all hope is lost
  • Why carving out time for personal growth is critical to your success

Watch the episode:


Connect with Ellen


Ellen’s book

Desire, Discipline, and Determination


Email Ellen to order an autographed copy of her book for just $12 (or 3 for $25).

Read the Transcription

Hi, and welcome to the Strong for Performance Podcast, and I am Meredith Bell, your host, and I am so excited today to welcome as my guest, Ellen Cooperperson. Ellen is just a tremendous colleague and friend, and so I’d like you to just say hi, Ellen.

Hi. Great to be here, and thanks for inviting me, Meredith.

Well, it is so wonderful to have you here because I know you’ve got amazing insights and tips that will be beneficial to our listeners and viewers, and what I wanted to do first is just take a minute to introduce you so they have a good understanding and appreciation for who you are.

Ellen is the CEO, founder, and Chief Learning Officer of her consulting firm, which is Cooperperson Performance Consulting, and she focuses on a number of areas, but she’s focused really on leadership development as well as being an amazing speaker. Audiences love her, and she’s also the author of a new bestselling book called Desire, Discipline, and Determination. Ellen, before we go deeper into the book, I’d love you to talk a little bit more about your business. What kinds of clients you work with, and what kind of results you help them get?

Okay, so I think one of the best ways is let me just roll that back a little bit and just share with you, to explain what the business is about. I’ve been doing this for 35 years. Before, there was a title called Leadership Coach or Executive Coach. I wish I had the insight back when to have come up with that name, but I was Executive Director of the Women’s Educational and Counseling Center, so helping women back into the workforce.

Then, as women were advancing in the workforce doing leadership and management development programs for them and then helping corporations both women and men for this very new thing that was emerging which is cultural change, and so cultural change became the foundation. Transforming cultures became the foundation of the business.


Like changing behavior and doing that through changing language, what people talk about, and what they say. Right? All the other programs in our organization have really emerged from that, including Courageous Conversations, which is our trademark.

Ah, okay, and so what kinds of results are you focused on when you work with, I’m assuming, mostly the leadership level within an organization?

Well, I think the best way to describe that… I want to give you an illustration. Okay?


Again, we’re talking about transforming behavior, which is very much an area, Meredith, that I admire you for as well, and so we’re working with a global manufacturing company. They’re asking us to transform the behavior of a small group of supervisors, next generation leaders. Management is asking us to get accountability, produce results of accountability from their supervisors.

We hold a kickoff meeting. Now, all the coaches and consultants, if you’re listening, audience will get this in a mega-second, right, because we use Strong for Performance in the program. By the way, you know something I love and adore, so we’re going to be doing this kickoff meeting to introduce Strong. The senior management, they don’t show up. There’s one that’s popping in and out. The other managers may be there, maybe not, and we have this whole audience of people who are supervisors with body language that says, “I don’t want to be here. I do not care what you’re talking about, and all this is one more program, one more training program, one more executive thing. We have to work in, and we’d really like to go back to work and do our job.” Okay?

My role now is to get them to understand that the change and behavior change that they’re looking for is going to leave in what they really value, and it’s clear from looking in this room what they really value. When you ask about results, the first meeting one-on-one coaching that I set up with these next generation leaders, three of the seven don’t show up. On the call, they’ve confirmed it. Right? Move forward, so I decide I’m going to send an email to them believing that senior management really wants accountability.

Send an email to them and let them know that participating in this program is a privilege, not a duty, and if they are not able to see it that way, I would suggest that the first thing they work on, first focus area is integrity because integrity means that you’re going to keep your word and show up when you say you are going to with CCs to their managers and suggesting that they have that conversation.

Very smart.

Meredith, to answer your question, we really are about changing behavior, and again, kudos to your program because these three people, by the way, had to call, and just the giggle between us all, beg to get back into the program. All right? Now, it’s got value, and we’ve all been in that situation where the client wants something. We know in our hearts and in all of our experience it’s not the right thing to do and it’s not going to produce the result that they’re asking for, which is they want success and they want productivity, and we’re producing the same results that all of us are in the business to do, but we’re not going to get there unless we have these Courageous Conversations. There’s a book out. I think it’s called Getting Naked, and it’s like stripping down, and past all the inauthenticity, and saying what needs to be said in order to really change behavior, and we need to model it and take some risks. Does that explain what I do?

Oh, absolutely because one of the things I’ve always admired about you is that boldness that you have in speaking up to clients who are not complying with agreements you have with them, and I think what you’re bringing up is so critical for anyone in the consulting and coaching world, which is making sure upfront that you have the full support, and buy-in, and accountability from those top leaders and they’re not just rushing off these people to you and saying, “Fix them,” that they agree to take an active role, and I think that was a key element of what you did with those leaders there.

I try.

You addressed that with them directly. Am I right?

Absolutely. Absolutely because the follow-up conversation needs to be and was. The accountability starts from the top, and the point that you’re making too is we can talk about it, but unless we take some action, and demonstrate what it looks like, and take some risks, all it’s going to be is conversation.

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

It’s got to live in what we have, the willingness to take a stand to do, and demonstrate to them, and hold them to their word

Well, and I also love the fact that you really turned it around where instead of the supervisors being required to attend this, it became… You have to earn your way to be able… So you did the takeaway, and I think too many times because many years ago, I was a consultant too, and when we feel that need to please the client and keep that business, we tend to turn ourselves into a pretzel to try to make it work, and we’re the ones doing the accommodating when what it really… what has a greater impact is stating, “This is not acceptable. This is what is going to have to happen,” and see if they are willing to commit and follow through with that.

That makes a huge difference in how we are perceived because my guess is now, as you work with them, you’re going to have their attention.

Absolutely. Absolutely. I mean, even in the first meeting, by saying, “I start on time. I end on time, and for me, the definition of ‘on time’ is 15 minutes early, ‘on time’ is late, ‘late’ is unacceptable, the door closes,” we’re setting the standards right from the beginning that says, “I’m not kidding. I’m really here to help you produce what you said you wanted. Now, I’m going to hold you accountable for what you said you wanted.”

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

That’s going to be in how you show up and play this game. Yes, we have started to work with this team, and the managers have thanked me for holding the line.

That’s great.

We all know that what you said… Absolutely true. “Blame the consultants” is very often the game we’re in. “Fix them. We don’t want any part of all of this,” and then when the whole thing falls apart, who is responsible? This is how I believe the residual business, where it comes from because we’re actually producing results and doing what we said we were going to do, but yeah, it takes a little courage.

Well, and speaking of courage, that’s a nice segue because I also wanted you to spend time talking about your new book. Ellen is a contributing author with 30 other really heart-centered entrepreneurs and leaders who tell these amazing stories of challenges they faced, but Ellen, yours stands out among them because of all the different challenges that you and your son have faced. The book again is Desire, Discipline, and Determination, and so I want to delve more deeply because, again, I think there are some great lessons for coaches and consultants to pull out of the experiences that you have dealt with over the years with your son facing literally life and death situations.

Thank you, Meredith. Let’s see. I was a single parent from the time my son was five, and that was a time when there were very few of any jobs for women to support their families. There was no child care. There was no enforced finances coming to me, so I had no money. I had a five-year-old baby. I had no place really to live, and I got an apartment in the building where my parents lived because they vouched for me, and I had 30 days to come up with the rent.

I talked, I convinced the Hershey Foods Corporation to hire their first woman with 105 men, and that was the beginning of a career that then began to blossom. Needless to say, of course, my name changed in there, and notoriety, and fame, and all that. In the middle of it all, when my son was 14, he was diagnosed with incurable cancer and things, of course, came crashing down there.

The doctors told me I needed to be realistic that my son would die, and I said, “I don’t think so.” By the grace of God, Meredith, and wonderful people that I met along the way, I found a doctor who cured him of incurable cancer. Fast forward, we go back and my son is growing. My career is… I’m back on my feet. We find out that the blood transfusions that cured him of cancer gave him AIDS, and this is a time when there was nothing on the market for AIDS.

I joined a parents group at the time and 18 children in that group died in one year. Once again, people said to me, “Ellen, you got to be realistic. There’s no cure for AIDS. There’s no treatment for it. The only thing that was on the market was like AZT, and people were just dying like flies. Not to mention how people were being treated in hospitals with AIDS because it was being treated like leprosy. Again, I have to be realistic. My son is going to die, and my point of view was, “Yeah, I don’t think so.”

I love your spirit.

Again, Meredith, it’s wonderful people that we meet along the way. Generous loving people who just give from their heart, and I found out that there was something on the market that was being in trials by Merck, and it was not about to be released for two more years. Again, wonderful people. I got to the chairman of Merck and begged for my son’s life, got him into a compassion trial and on the new drugs two years before they were released on the market, and he was that close to dementia.

He bounces back from AIDS. By the way, he proposed to his wife in the hospital when he was diagnosed with AIDS, and she said, “I loved you before. I loved you now. Of course, you have a hell of a time for asking me for all this.” She said, “But if you make me go away, I’ll kill you.” Wonderful young woman.

Okay. We find out later this same transfusion gave him hepatitis. Same kind of feedback to me, “Nothing on the market.” My response is the same, “Yeah, I don’t think so.” We find a way to cure him of hepatitis, and then he gets for the fourth time fungal meningitis, and for the fourth time, they tell me, “Nothing. Prepare yourself. Your son is going to die.” I say, “No, I don’t know. It’s not going to happen. Okay?”

Once again, in the middle… Midwest, find somebody. Just the right drug, just the right time, and again, this is God’s grace. I’m sharing this story of me, my son, but I’m really clear this is like divine intervention, and so we get him on the drug that he needs for fungal meningitis. He bounces back from that, cures him of that, and in the process, someone gave me a tremendous gift. They said, “In a pile of manure, daisies grow.” I would keep looking for the daisy.

Last piece I want to tell you. They told me that because of all he’s been through, he will never have children. 16 years ago, my first grandchild was born, and 15 years ago, my second grandchild was born. They both have autism, and neither one of them are verbal. Guess what I’ve been told? They will never speak. You can guess my response.

I don’t think so.

I don’t think so. Lots of lessons that come out of it, Meredith, and the story in the book is really this journey. We celebrated my son’s… This all started when he was 14. The story in the book takes place at his 40th birthday party where 200 people attend. All the doctors, the nurses, Eastern, Western medicine kind of people, and my son, this summer, will be celebrating his 53rd birthday.

That is such an amazing story. It just gives me chills even though I’ve read your chapter and I knew the parts. Still hearing you talk about it is so profound because most folks, if they faced just one of those instances of a child’s life being threatened, it would be… It could be devastating. Some people never do recover from the loss of a child because they take a different approach than you did. They acquiesce. They are resigned to the faith that’s been dictated. One of the things I just admire so much about you is your not just resistance to, but refusal to consider those kinds of opinions. It’s not reality for you.


We all face challenges. I hope our viewers and listeners have not faced as many serious life-threatening challenges as you just described, but still, we all have our roadblocks, setbacks, horrible things that can happen to us, and so I’d like you to talk a little bit about what are the tools or the inner resources that you tapped into to give you the strength to prevail because I think those insights can be very valuable for our audience no matter what specific challenge they may be facing.

Yeah. Thank you. First thing from what you said, now, I know… Trying to run a business, for example. You can wake up in the morning and you got all these pressures on you, financial pressures, delivery pressures. I’ve been thinking lately about this word called “deadline.” It’s like… We’ll talk about that in another time, but I think this deadline stuff is really killing people.

Lot and lot of pressures on people, and I think some of the tools have to do with, number one, is compartmentalizing because… Even though I had what I needed to do in relation to my son, I still had a business to run. I still got employees I needed to be responsible for. I still needed to deliver results to my clients, and so this is about having a burning desire and staying laser-focused on the mission.

See, I think what happens and what you were talking about is that instead of staying focused on, “There is a solution. There’s a solution, and I’m going to find that solution, and whatever it takes, I’m going to find that solution, and I know it’s there.” Instead, we can collapse into the feelings as opposed to the mission, and we focus on the problem, and we keep talking about the problem instead of keep talking about the solution. “What’s the solution I’m looking for? Who can help me with that solution?” It’s imperative that we ask and ask big. “I need a solution to this.” We need to have the humility to say, “I don’t have the answer to this. I need your assistance with it. Do you know anybody who can put me in touch with?” It’s the same thing with business development, isn’t it?


“Here’s what I’m working for.” Ask big. “Do you know anybody who knows anybody in that organization?” Right? It’s the reciprocity of finding the right people, the people who have this kind of love and goodness in their heart that understand that giving is getting. Right?


That there’s a flow, that there’s an energy flow. You know what I’m saying here. I do think it very much relates to our running our businesses with staying laser-focused. The other is about the determination. Failure is inevitable. Defeat is not. That’s a choice. It’s a choice to say, “I give up. There’s no answer to this.” Right? We’re going to fail, and we hear that all the time, “Prepare yourself. The more we’re going to take risks, we’re going to fail,” and we tell our customers that. Right?

It feels lousy, and we got to… It’s like the baseball game. When I’m singing to the choir, I’m sure we going to get up, find people like Meredith to call the coach’s coach, and we’ve got, seriously, the support system around us, and that’s another point, Meredith. Who we have around us is so critical to have that kind of support to get through the difficult times including…


Right? Including what we read. Now, I heard a speaker just the other day who said, “Show me what you’re reading now, and I’ll tell you about the results you’re going to produce a year from now.” How cool is that? Right?

That’s great.

Yeah, because the books, and the tapes, and the podcasts we bring into our life is going to mold our thinking to go ahead, and there’s another statement that I love, and you’ve heard it in many different variations. “Success is preparation meeting opportunity.” Right? Lately, I’ve been thinking about that because opportunity, I’ve always thought, is something great is going to show up like Oprah sees us and wants us on The Oprah Show, but I started thinking about it in terms of opportunity is when there’s something that I’m going to say is disastrous or a crisis. Are we prepared? Are we doing all these personal growth things that we do stuff that we do as coaches and consultants? It’s our food every day.


We need to do that lifting every day because we don’t know what’s coming right around the corner, and it’s that that allows us to be the leaders that we are because we’re prepared for it, and rather than being reactive… I just met with a group this morning so that I could meet with CEOs, a round table of CEOs to be talking about cyber security. Oh, no. This is the subject I’m now going to be an authority on, but what… and that’s the wonderful thing about this profession. It just leads us all over the place, but the point is what happens if something disastrous happens. Right?

The people at 9/11… Not to trigger folks out here, but 9/11. There were leaders that emerged on 9/11, the leaders, and there’s nobody around to look at, to talk to, to say, “What am I supposed to do?” The buck stops right there. You have to decide. I was just working with the International Guard and the next generation of leaders, and I said exactly that. “You’re going to be out there if the lights go out.”

I don’t want to get everybody all crazy here, but if there’s something that happens, you’re the one that’s out there. You’re the leader. There’s nobody to go to so go to your mentoring sessions, do your practice, participate because you’re the one that’s going to be on the front line. You want to lead. You want to be successful in your business? Do your homework and don’t listen to your feelings about it because if I listen to my feelings, most days, I would not want to get out of bed. My feelings want me to stay asleep, to stay in my comfort zone. Right?

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

What’s the mission? What did we say we want to do? What did we say we would accomplish? Be the integrity of our word. Did I just tell you more than you wanted to know?

Oh, no. I think everything you said is relevant, for sure, for any coach or consultant working with clients in helping them think through their conversations with their clients, but also, for themselves with their own development, their own business development efforts, and being willing to I think dig deep and look within.

Some of the takeaways I have from what you’ve just been describing is are you really clear on what you want in your business, about what your mission really is because I think the stronger… In this case, I think feeling is relevant and important. The stronger your feeling and attachment is to your mission, the more you’re driven to work past discomfort, fear, whatever in the past has held you back.

You were talking about asking big. I think from working with hundreds of coaches and consultants over the years that have used our products, one of the things that I have seen and been guilty of myself when I was in that position is asking too small, thinking too small, and playing too small instead of giving ourselves credit, feeling confident and courageous enough to ask the kind of questions you were just talking about because I think it’s too easy to be reticent and hope.

Mm-hmm (affirmative). Mm-hmm (affirmative).

I think about you with each of those four situations with your son. If you had taken any kind of less aggressive approach, you wouldn’t be here today.

Right. That’s right. Even the doctor that worked with him on AIDS, he said it was the first time that any family had ever shown up at his door where their first conversation was, “Okay. We’re here. What are we going to do?” He said, “People just kept showing up. ‘Okay, doctor. What do you think we should do?'” We showed up, and we were a team. “What are we going to do?” He said it transformed his practice because he got it that he must involve the family in the decision-making process. Right?

That’s great, and it sounds like also, he learned from you, helping them take ownership so they weren’t being meek, and mild, and just seeking his expert opinion. They indicated… You indicated with your question, “We’re here to take action, so let’s create a plan here. We’re ready to implement.”

Yeah, yeah, and when you said… and you’re absolutely right. The emotion needs to get connected to the mission because I agree with you for the most part. You ask people what they want, they really cannot articulate it. Right? It comes out something like just more. Right? “I want more money.” “I want my body to be better.” “I want to find the perfect mate.” “I want to build my business.” They want more.

They will trade that for a mission that is connected to a burning desire. “I will forgo all the trappings. I will put that all aside, but I will fulfill this mission no matter what it’s going to take.” That’s when we know it’s an authentic burning desire to use our talents and skills whenever we’re called, our special genius, whatever that is, to make a difference, and dare I say coaches and consultants for the most part, which we know, are here to be of service. That’s the driving…


Right? That is the driving force of everyone I have met in this profession, “Let me make a difference,” and got a passion for it, which is a beautiful thing to be around, and I think some of the things that you and I are talking about right now is if we want to make a difference, we have to hold on to that mission, we have to ask big. We have to take a bold stand, and we can’t play small. We got to play a big game.

When I have leaders of leaders of companies who tell me that they’re small, that they can’t, I say, “You are not going to convince me that you’re not a champion. You are not going to convince me that you’re small. Okay? You’re going to play big, and yeah, it’s uncomfortable and it’s scary. So what?”

Yeah. This is one of the things I love about your experience in life and all these challenges you faced. With a corporate client, it’s like no big deal. Nobody’s life is at stake. You’re not at all afraid or reticent to speak up and say what they need to do, and that’s why your Courageous Conversations is so powerful because you know what it takes because of your life experience.


Ellen, we could keep talking I know for another hour. We’re at the end of our time, so one of the things I would like you to do is let people know how they can get a copy of that wonderful book.

I just happen to have one available right there.

Oh, good. Good.

Let me put it over here. Okay?

That’s great.

Yeah, and as you mentioned, there’s 30 different authors in here. They can get it on Amazon. Order it on Amazon, or they can send me an email, ellen@cooperperson or info@cooperperson. I will be happy to sign it for people who are sending $12, and I’ll do an autograph if you want. More than one, we’re doing our special just for people on your line. $25 for three of them. What I’m hearing is that it’s making a great graduation gift.

Oh, perfect.

Yeah, for next generation leaders, kids coming out of school, so just let me know. If you email me and you want the book, I’ll sign it, and I will autograph it for them. Yeah.

Oh, that’s wonderful, so it’s ellen@cooperperson.com?

That’s great, and we’ll include that in our show notes page so that people will have access to that, and I’d like you also just to mention real quick. You’ve got another wonderful program that gets at communication called Connect, and so just tell people a little bit about that and how they can learn more about it.

Okay. In this conversation we’ve been having today, we’ve been talking about how to make great connections, and ask big, and Courageous Conversations, so we put together an eight-session video program. All micro-lessons. No longer than 10 minutes each because people can’t sit longer than that for the most part, and to take a look at the trailer of it, folks can go on connectcpc.com. That’s connectcpc.com. Just go to the trailer. It’s five minutes. It will give you a picture of it. We do have coaches and consultants who have been participating in reseller programs and channel partners to us with that product, and it’s very DISC-centric as well, so certainly, people who are certified in DISC and using DISC as a form of communication in organizations will find it very, very helpful and very useful.

Yes, indeed, and I can vouch first-hand. I’ve been through that program, and it’s excellent, so I highly recommend that folks check that out. Ellen, it has just been a pleasure and a privilege to get to talk to you today and hear you talk about your personal journey as well as the work you’re doing with organizations, and so I want to wish you continued success, and thank you for everything you provided here today.

Meredith, thank you. It’s always a delight to work with you. Thank you.